Buckle up, today we’re talking about game systems designers. Much like the term engineering can cover everything from programming to bridges to cars to chemicals, game systems are broad, diverse and highly specialized.
At the core, a game system designer is the type of game designer who develops the parts of the game that are not directly controlled by the player themselves. This can include the way game mechanics affect the game universe, cameras, progression systems, overall balance and resource systems.
While a content designer is laser focused on a specific piece, the systems designer is a step removed, concerned about the working of the whole.
Examples of daily work in game systems design
When I was a game systems designer at Riot, I might spend a week developing standards for status effects and working with Mitchell Malloy on iconography to convey consistency between stuns, fears, airborne effects and charm.
The next week I’d be reviewing the amount of gold generated by different champions based on the lane and role they held.
Another week could be spent revising level-up rates and armor growth curves on turrets and jungle minions.
A month later, I might be working to tweak camera settings inside of spectator mode or looking at the drop rate of in-game currency.
In my time working on Ori & The Will of the Wisps, I revised UI elements, defined the health and damage multipliers of every monster by zone, determined the amount of spirit light (money) generated per kill, per zone and reward, and adjusted the price of items accordingly.
As you can see, which system you’re working on in this job varies from person to person and even week to week.
Here’s a list of just some of the sub categories of systems designer, and the game elements they might work on:
- Class & Balance Systems Designer:
- Health, Damage and Stat Curves
- Talent Tree Structure and Rules
- Item Designer:
- Unique Effects, Budget Progression and Strategic Niche
- Item Weight, Equipment Weight and Load Systems
- Crafting Costs, Resource Usage
- Mechanic Designer: Side Effects, Interactables and Trigger Conditions
- Camera Designer: Position and Movement, Enemy Priority, Cover Position & Dynamics
- Economy Designer: Currency Generation Rates, Quest Rewards, Currency Sinks
- Breaking into the industry
- Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
- Navigating your current career path
You can also get notified each week on the latest game design job listings and actionable tips here 👇
Working with the rest of the game design team
While every team has a unique structure and on smaller teams people will bridge many roles, what game systems designers do is always closely linked to the work of other game designers around them.
For example, let’s say systems designers for an open world game are setting general rules for enemy detection. They decide on a mixture of patrol paths, pause timers and facing angles on specific nodes of that path that enables good open-world stealth gameplay.
Level designers then create a single example camp to test it out. Realizing that players can’t tell when an enemy has seen them, they alert the team that new features are needed to solve this issue.
The systems designers then work with the UI and animation teams to add ? or ! alerts and enemy animations.
Sound and audio designers then make unique and clear sounds to warn the player that they’ve been detected even if they can’t see the enemy.
As level designers create more areas and QA tests the game, the systems designer responsible uses their feedback to adjust aggression radiuses, detection arcs and the audible distance values.
Finally, a content designer goes in and tweaks specific enemy values in-game to make each experience perfect. *chef’s kiss*
How to Become a Game Systems Designer
Follow these 6 steps.
Step 1: Understand if game systems design career right for you?
If you have good analytical and organizational skills, can bend video game math and logic to your will, and have a strong set of abstract reasoning skills, then systems design is likely a good match for you.
If not, see if other types of game designers matches your context better.
One downside is that you will almost never get the same amount of visibility or notoriety that content developers achieve by making a player’s favorite pieces of content.
However, your system design will have a broader impact on the game as a whole and define more of the game experience than any other single contribution.
If you need the glory and validation, content designer is more likely to get you likes on social media. But if you’re a game designer who cares about how people play and can focus on the bigger picture, then system designer is a fantastic fit.
“Funsmithing” is a selfless task, focused on bringing joy to others, and systems design takes this to heart at the project level.
Step 2: Learning key game systems design skill set
If you decide to walk this path and be competent at it, you must hone the following skills:
Skill 1: Understand game design principles and be able to apply them pragmatically. You can’t develop the right features unless you can identify the type of game you’re making.
A single-player power fantasy and a competitively balanced multiplayer game have completely different needs.
Skill 2: Understanding and be able to identify abstract expression of repeating underlying patterns, concepts, and structures across different games and systems.
This will empower you to transform and transfer those concepts when making your own game features.
For example: the perk system in Call of Duty isn’t much different than upgrades in Hades, but the timing of when you make your choices is different, which supports each game’s respective strategic goals.
Skill 3: Learn and be able to apply the math that translates in the type of gameplay that evokes desired emotional experience and goals of a resource flow system.
In addition, utilizing statistics, spreadsheets and flow charts will dramatically increase your ability to be impactful as a systems designer.
Skill 4: Knowing some programming languages or at least basic
coding scripting skills can help here as well.
Learning C#, Lua, Python and C++ on the side will open up a lot of possibilities. Without scripting, you’re limiting yourself to just what’s available out of the box in game engines.
Even if you’re not on the path to being a full technical designer, understanding the constraints your engineers are under will enable you to understand and communicate with them effectively. Don’t discount the value of a little coding knowledge even for non-technical roles.
Skill 5: Cultivate a deep curiosity into the nature of fun. Analyzing what goes into making a successful game is the first step to deeply understanding this industry.
No degree or online resource can do this all for you in one easy single package. It takes time and experience.
However, with effective mentor guidance and insight, you can develop these skills and skip parts of the trial and error.
Step 3: Be hands and actually make games
Game jams and experimenting with creative ideas are a start, but deep experience requires years of facing the many random obstacles that come across your path while developing new games across many genres.
You can also use this free game design workshop where you’re provided with video instructions, templates, examples, playtesting, and feedback to build a playable prototype without coding.
If you don’t have the experience to code on your own, board games and card games both require the same kind of critical thinking and abstract understanding of resources that will be immensely helpful inside the games industry.
Step 4: Reverse engineering
Take some time to reverse engineer your favorite games. If you haven’t heard the term before, this means breaking down a game into its systems and parts such that you could rebuild it if necessary.
Break these games down into both their structural and emotional components and understand:
- What are all the moving parts that make up a system?
- What decisions were made about how these parts interacted?
- How does that shape the play experience?
Much like disassembling a car teaches you how it works, reverse engineering how games and systems work not only develops your skills, it also creates a stronger portfolio for a systems designer.
Step 5: Start working in an entry level game design position
If you’re currently not working as a game designer, you will need to first start from an entry-level position to get the basics down.
As a new hire, you may not have a specialized title and could be asked to help with a variety of tasks.
Rather than making systems from scratch, you’ll usually start by
- Creating content on top of already built systems
- Cleaning up bugs in existing systems such as:
- Making minor balance changes
- Investigating logic errors other designers have introduced while prototyping
- Fixing small content issues
Due to the interdependent nature of the work, systems designers need to understand many pieces of the whole to be effective.
See How You Can Learn the Gameplay Design Abilities Game Studios Are After To...
These types of tasks will build your foundation to platform into the systems designer role. This applies to any specialized game designer roles.
💡 Tip: Be clear and upfront with the studio leadership about your interested for the systems designer role when you start, so they will make a mental note to assign you responsibilities accordingly.
A strong manager who is helping you specialize in systems design will likely have you doing small support tasks with a lot of different teams and technologies.
In addition to learning the work, use this opportunity to build trust and gratitude from your teammates and colleagues.
This kind of social backbone is needed when you begin integrating systems that will suddenly require support, extra work and buy-in from others on the team.
For example: My colleague Daniel Kramer began transitioning into a role as a systems designer by developing bots to automate testing for class design.
Initially it was laborious work to script each spell, ability and priority by hand, but by doing so, he could produce in-game results nightly to showcase how changes made by class design affected endgame balance.
His consistent, diligent work helped dramatically improve the quality of Mists of Pandaria and ultimately became a systems designer.
If you need help getting hired, check out this guide on how to pass the studio hiring process efficiently.
Game Systems Designer FAQs
What is the average salary of a game systems designer?
On average, a systems designer makes between $71,000 to $115,000 per year.
Because of the technical skill and relatively behind-the-scenes work that comes with game systems work, it tends to pay better than other game design positions.
Do you need a degree to get into game development?
No, you don’t. Computer science and mathematics degrees can give you many of the skills needed to be effective in these roles, but ultimately you need to showcase you can do the analysis work that is needed for the game.
What other similar specialized game design roles should you consider?
If you’re more programming-heavy, check out technical designer jobs. This is a half-programmer, half designer role which is in a similar pay bracket and uses similar skills.
If you love creating tools, tools design puts an even more selfless focus on the work, and helps developers create their games.
If you’re also heavily invested in story or have a practical writing background, narrative systems design may also be an option.
If this introduction to my favorite corner of game design interests you, I hope you join me in this rewarding and fulfilling career.
If you have any questions or are planning for your next project and are looking for people to trade ideas and resources with, come introduce yourself on our Discord.
Game design is always better as a collaboration.